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May 24th, 2016:

The Commissioners Court candidates forum

El Franco Lee

On Sunday, I attended the candidate forum held by the HCDP for the people who are interested in being named to replace the late El Franco Lee on the ballot this November. The Chron has a report on it here, but I’m just going to give you my impressions of the event and the candidates.

The event started with an introduction by HCDP Chair Lane Lewis, who gave a long and obviously written by a lawyer explanation that just because someone was participating in this event does not mean that person has declared himself a candidate for the office. In fact, one doesn’t ever have to declare oneself a candidate for this office, but instead can graciously accept the spot on the ballot if the precinct chairs in their wisdom call upon one to take it. I’ll give you three guesses which candidate present for this event this was aimed at.

There were six candidates in attendance for what was to be a fairly standard candidate forum, in which a moderator (KPRC’s Khambrel Marshall) would ask questions (some prepared beforehand, some solicited from the audience) that participants would answer. Each candidate got to make a two-minute intro speech, and the questions would be assigned to two candidates each, though some of them were answered by all. Marshall picked the candidates and the order in which they responded. Overall, it went pretty well, and I’ll get to the candidates and my view of them in a minute, but first I want to share the two most important things I learned from this event.

First and foremost, if on the initial round of voting at the Precinct Executive Committee meeting on June 25 at which the nominee is picked no candidate receives a majority of the precinct chairs in attendance, then the top two will go to a runoff, to be conducted immediately following that vote. There had been a lot of confusion on that point – several people at the event asked me this specific question, which was finally answered by Gerry Birnberg after the debate part was over. He also emphasized that as per Robert’s Rules of Order, only the relevant precinct chairs in attendance at the event could vote. No proxies or phone-ins would be allowed. To say the least, that puts a lot of emphasis on the most concentrated get-out-the-vote effort you’ll ever see.

The other item had to do with the selection of candidates for the 507th Family Court and Harris County Criminal Court At Law #16, for which I’ll write a separate post. I had originally been under the impression that we would take care of all of this business on the same day, June 25. That is not the case. As Lane Lewis told me, we need to keep those things separate to ensure that only chairs in Precinct 1 are involved in the selection of the Commissioners Court nominee. The judicial nominees will be chosen five days later, at the next County Executive Committee meeting on Thursday night, June 30.

As for the candidates at this forum for this race:

Ricky Tezino: I have no idea what he was doing here.

Georgia Provost: She got a lot of audience response from making numerous provocative, mostly anti-establishment statements. That’s an interesting strategy to pursue in an election that will be decided entirely by precinct chairs, but she did have some support in the crowd. She and the other two candidates who are not current officeholders pitched themselves as scrappy outsiders not beholden to anyone who would come in and shake things up. There’s a place for that kind of candidate – City Council, for which Provost has made two recent campaigns, is one example – but I for one am not sure that’s a good idea for the lone Democrat on Harris County Commissioners Court. YMMV and all that.

DeWayne Lark: Of the three “outsider” candidates, he made the best impression on me. At one point during the forum, there was a somewhat bizarre question about the need for a public defender’s office in Harris County. Georgia Provost, answering first, gave a rambling response in which it was not at all clear she understood that there was a PD’s office already and that it had been in operation for several years. Lark followed that with an unequivocal statement that we already have such an office, and the main issue with it is that judges in Harris County are not required to use it instead of the old system of assigning an attorney themselves. Lark was in general fairly well informed, he gave concise answers, and he offered the best slogan of the evening, “Come out of the dark and vote for Lark”.

Dwight Boykins: He was at his best when he was talking about the things he has done on Council and how he would implement them as a County Commissioner. He spent a lot of time talking up his second chance job programs in particular. He also had two bad moments that stuck out. Late in the forum, there was an audience-submitted question regarding HERO. Ellis gave a short answer stating his firm support for HERO. Locke also strongly supported HERO, but criticized the way the campaign in support of it was handled. Lark said something about opposing discrimination but having issues with the wording of the ordinance, which was not a good answer but at least was short. Boykins’ response began with his intent to work with Mayor Parker to pass a non-discrimination ordinance, until he started getting calls from constituents who didn’t like it, so he had to vote against it. The whole thing was a mess. Later, he walked right into the biggest haymaker of the evening, in response to a question about why were the candidates Democrats. Ellis was first, and he gave a rousing, red meat answer that got a big cheer from the crowd. Boykins followed, and after beginning by saying he was born a Democrat, he took a shot at Ellis for having previously referred to him as a Republican. Ellis responded to that by saying well, what do you call someone who votes in a Republican primary? (The crowd responded as you might expect to that.) Boykins tried to salvage things by saying he voted for Kay Bailey Hutchison over Rick Perry, and the Democrats didn’t have a candidate. The crowd didn’t appear to catch that he had just publicly overlooked Bill White in 2010, but everyone I talked to about it afterwards noticed. It was not Boykins’ finest moment.

Gene Locke and Rodney Ellis: I’m putting these two together because they both had the most visible presence at the event. They had display tables in the lobby, they brought a bunch of supporters wearing their campaign T-shirts, and more importantly, they both made it through without saying or doing anything that would make a supporter change his or her mind about them. They emphasized their experience and credentials, with Ellis making a spirited defense of his 30+ years in public office, and they both brought their A games rhetorically. The Chron story said that Locke’s discussion of his plan to help fix the streets in front of Reliant Stadium for the Super Bowl was contentious, but I have to confess I missed any negative response to it from the crowd. The bottom line is that if you came in thinking these two were the frontrunners, I saw nothing in the event to change that perception.

You get a severance! And you get a severance!

Everybody gets a severance package!

BagOfMoney

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush has spent nearly $1 million in taxpayer money to entice dozens of people fired by his administration to agree not to sue him or the agency, a practice that may run afoul of a ban on severance pay for state workers.

Bush, a first-term Republican, has directed the General Land Office to keep at least 40 people on the payroll for as long as five months after ending their employment, according to an analysis of records obtained by the Houston Chronicle. The ex-staffers did not have to use vacation time, and, in fact, continued to accrue more time for as long as they were on the payroll. In return, they agreed in writing not to sue the agency or discuss the deal.

Many of the recipients were top aides to former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson who were fired during an agency “reboot” in which Bush replaced more than 100 employees.

Such separation arrangements are made frequently in the corporate world, but are not allowed in Texas government, where there is no severance and staffers generally are required to work to be paid, according to employment lawyers, union leaders and former state officials.

“I can understand the thinking of an agency head who wants to get rid of someone and thinks that this is an easy way to do it, but this is not the way to do it,” said Buck Wood, an ethics expert and former deputy state comptroller, noting the detailed rules that govern how agencies can spend money do not authorize that purpose. “Keeping someone on the payroll when they’re not coming to work so you can avoid the hassle of a lawsuit is just illegal.”

Malinda Gaul, a San Antonio employment lawyer who has represented state workers for 33 years, said she had never heard of such an arrangement.

[…]

Steve Aragon, a former general counsel for the Health and Human Services Commission, said he thinks there are justifiable reasons to pay employees for not working, including to prevent litigation in cases in which it was clear that a staffer likely would not come back. However, he said, it is not something that state agencies should do frequently.

“These situations should be exceptional and would not be expected as a matter of routine,” Aragon said.

Others objected to any use of the practice, including Seth Hutchinson, a spokesman for the Texas State Employees Union.

“It’s not an appropriate use of state funds,” Hutchinson said. “If people are being wrongfully fired, they’re being wrongfully fired, and they shouldn’t be using state funds to cover it up.”

After being told that it is not uncommon in the corporate world, Hutchinson scoffed.

“State government should be held to a higher standard of accountability,” he said.

This is getting to be quite the pattern, isn’t it? It’s almost like Baby Bush and Ken Paxton and Sid Miller have no regard for the law but only care about their own interests. I presume someone will file a complaint about this, thus providing Greg Abbott another opportunity to profess ignorance about what’s happening in his government. Keep it up, fellas.

Japanese high-speed rail operator to open Dallas office

To be close to the action, no doubt.

The Dallas Regional Chamber announced Thursday afternoon that Central Japan Railway Co. will station about 20 employees in Dallas.

The company’s technical and operations experts will help privately-backed Texas Central Partners with the development of what could be America’s first high-speed rail line. Texas Central plans to use the same train and rail technology that Central Japan uses on its Tokaido Shinkansen line that connectsTokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.

“This new train service will drive continued economic growth across Texas, relieve congestion along Interstate 45, and connect our business community with the Houston market in a highly efficient manner,” Dallas chamber president and CEO Dale Petroskey said in a prepared statement.

Plans for a Dallas-Houston bullet train have drawn cheers from federal officials and the state’s two largest urban areas. But it’s fiercely opposed in the rural counties that sit between the two regions.

The Dallas station is planned to be near or atop Interstate 30, just south of downtown. That station and development around it are seen as a way to reconnect downtown to theburgeoning Cedars neighborhood.

Texas Central has some opponents in Congress, too, primarily from suburban areas in between Dallas and Houston. No one ever said this would be easy. Central Japan Railway has been involved in other ways as well, no surprise given the technology and their significant investment in the project. I don’t know that having a Texas presence for CJR will help, but it can’t hurt.

Primary runoff day is today

From the inbox:

vote-button

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart strongly urges voters to visit www.HarrisVotes.com to find their designated Election Day polling location for the May 24, Primary Runoff Election.   There, voters can also find their personal sample ballot and the answers to most of their voting questions.

“In Runoff Elections, there are significantly less Election Day locations.  The Democratic Party has consolidated the voting precincts into 85 voting locations and the Republican Party has consolidated into 78 voting locations,” informed Stanart, the county’s chief election official. “Please remember that on Election Day, voters must vote at the designated polling location for their precinct, so please check www.HarrisVotes.com for your location.”  Per Texas Election code and Secretary of State guidelines, each political party determines the polling locations, as well as the allocation of equipment and election clerks at each poll.

“Please be aware that voters may only participate in the Primary Runoff Election of the party for which they voted in March,” alerted Stanart. “A voter may not cross-over between parties from the Primary and the Primary Runoff Elections.  Voters who did not vote in March may vote in either political party’s Primary Runoff Election, but not both.”

The Harris County Primary Runoff election ballot includes twelve contests for Democrats and six for Republicans.

On Tuesday, voters determine their party’s candidates for several important local and statewide races.  I encourage every eligible voter to do their homework and then go vote,” concluded Stanart.

For more election information, voters may call 713.755.6965 or visit www.HarrisVotes.com.

Democratic precinct locations for Runoff Day are here, and Republican locations are here. Don’t just assume you can show up at your usual place, or even the place you voted in March. There’s a good chance you will be wrong about that. Check first, then vote. Early voting turnout was low, so your vote really counts in these races. Get out there and make your voice heard.